Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch moving from July to October, we’re singling out other ensemble comedies to watch instead.
Family is what you make it. It’s an idea that Pedro Almodóvar, for one, seems to have taken to heart, having cultivated a familiar constellation of artistic collaborators—a surrogate family of sorts—over the course of his extensive career. It’s no coincidence that so many of his characters are compelled to seek out or establish alternate family structures, nor that his plots often deal with the complications that arise from escaping one’s origins. Almodóvar himself called his provincial childhood home “the last place [he] wanted to grow into adulthood,” and quickly set out for cosmopolitan Madrid as a teenager, against his parents’ wishes. His plans to attend Spain’s national film school were brought up short by its abrupt closure—though this was perhaps for the better, as he ended up shooting Super 8 films in his spare time and becoming a part of La Movida Madrileña, a major post-Franco cultural movement. But as he also no doubt learned during that time, the city has its own discontents.
There are plenty of them in What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Almodóvar’s fourth feature, his first to secure U.S. distribution, and a highlight of his ’80s output. Set in a cramped apartment complex next to a Madrid motorway, the film is a veritable catalog of familial dysfunction aggravated by the daily drudgery of urban life. Carmen Maura (a mainstay of Almodóvar’s early period) stars as Gloria, a cleaning lady, housewife, and all-around woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adding to her everyday pressures of keeping house and paying the bills—all while maintaining an amphetamine habit—are her good-for-nothing husband, Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López), who pines for his former life selling forgeries of Hitler’s diaries; her elderly mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave, another Almodóvar regular), who longs to return to her home village; and her two teenage sons, one of whom is having an affair with his schoolmate’s father. Gloria’s only relief seems to be hanging out with her vivacious neighbor, a sex worker played by Verónica Forqué—though the two still end up having to deal with their mutual friend, an abusive mother whose young daughter has secret telekinetic powers.
As that last bit suggests, What Have I Done, despite its miserablist trappings, is about as far from kitchen-sink realism as one could imagine. Featuring strikingly artificial staging, wild tonal shifts, and a blithe acceptance of outrageous and/or disturbing behavior, it channels familial anguish into bold, brash comedy—something like The Glass Menagerie if it were played as riotous farce. Which is also to say that the film is very much of a piece with the Spanish director’s audacious ’80s comedies, particularly 1988’s screwball Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, also starring Maura. “Undisciplined” tends to be the critical watchword here, and it’s true that What Have I Done piles on a great number of narrative turns, including one where Gloria sends her 12-year-old son to live with a pedophiliac dentist when she can’t pay for his treatment. But the fact that Almodóvar brings this bizarre subplot quite literally home in the moving finale is evidence of the tightrope he walks throughout.
Like so much of the Spanish director’s filmography, What Have I Done To Deserve This? is, at its core, a richly imagined story about a group of people struggling through trying, often unfair circumstances. A different film might, in the end, force us to choose between family and freedom. But it’s a mark of Almodóvar’s generous worldview that forgiveness is always an option, however difficult. We have the families we’re born with, we have the ones we make, and maybe doing our best with both is the best we can do.